“To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator. For such a delicate mission great art is required to suggest the right moment and to limit intervention, last one should disturb or lead astray rather than help the soul which is coming to life and which will live by virtue of it’s own efforts.” ~Maria Montesssori
In her book “The Discovery of the Child” Maria Montessori discusses how the use of rewards and punishments and the creation of classrooms with desks set up in rows to “educate” large numbers of children simultaneously was an artificial act of enslavement of children, controlling their natural movements, so that they could be managed and controlled in same-age groups, as if they were objects or machines.
This soul crushing “factory” model of schooling, set up by wealthy industrialists in the early part of the last century, had gone unquestioned, and is still with us today. Montessori observed that children had an innate creativity, wisdom and intelligence, an inner desire for order, balance and harmonious organization, and that they would work in a self-disciplined and organized fashion on their own, if left free to do so.
As this narrated biography explains, while observing the young children of factory laborers, Montessori found that children would become happily engaged in meaningful work when provided with structured activities and materials that fit with their developmental level and interests.
Montessori believed that by forcing children to sit “chained” to their desks―to comply with rigid demands, instruction, tests, grades and schedules―adults were denying children their human and spiritual right to be free, to make choices about how and what they learned, on their own. The following excerpt comes from the first chapter of “The Discovery of the Child”:
“The rewards and punishments are, to speak frankly, the “desk” of the soul, that is, a means of enslaving a child’s spirit, and better suited to provoke rather than to prevent [psychological] deformities. Actually, rewards and punishments are employed to compel children to conform to the laws of the world rather than to those of God.
Too often a teacher commands because he is strong and expects a child to obey because he is weak. Instead of acting in this way, an adult should show himself to a child as a loving and enlightened guide assisting him along the way leading to the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who uses his talents can be exalted, and everyone can receive a reward, whether he has many talents or only a poor single one.
But in school there is only one prize for all of those “of good will” who enter the race, a fact that generates pride, envy, and rivalries instead of that thrill coming from effort, humility and love which all can experience. One day a child will surely ask himself if the prizes won at school were not rather obstacles on the way to eternal life.
No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a “reward” or by the fear of what we call a “punishment”. If an army of giants were to wage a war for no other reason than to win promotions, stripes, or medals , or simply to avoid being shot, against a band of pygmies, inflamed with a love for their country, the latter would certainly obtain the victory…
Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from some inner compulsion. A young student can become a great teacher or doctor if he is driven on by an interest in his vocation; but if he is motivated solely by the hope of a legacy or.. some external advantage, he will never become a real teacher or doctor…
If a young man must be punished or rewarded by his school or family to make him study for his degree, it would be better for him not to receive it at all. Everyone has a special inclination or special secret, hidden vocation. It may be modest, but it is certainly useful. An award can divert such a calling and turn one’s head to the loss of one’ s true vocation.”
Later in the book, she writes:
“To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator. For such a delicate mission great art is required to suggest the right moment and to limit intervention, last one should disturb or lead astray rather than help the soul which is coming to life and which will live by virtue of it’s own efforts.”
Maria Montessori’s observations about children’s learning are in alignment with the ideas of respected progressive educators such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, James Comer, Jerome Bruner, Benjamin Bloom, Lev Vygotsky, Carol Dweck, Howard Gardner, John Taylor Gatto and Barbara Rogoff. Although she spoke with spiritual terminology and in the language of her time, we now have decades of research in fields such as developmental, cognitive and motivational psychology that lend support to her model of child-centered education and her core hypotheses about children’s natural ways of self-direction and learning.
The questions Maria Montessori asked, the remedies she proposed and her strong critique of the authoritarian structures of factory model schooling are still highly relevant today. What is the purpose of education? Is it simply to make children “career and college ready” or do we need to keep deeper goals, understandings and values in mind?
In this excerpt from an English translation of a French radio interview, from November, 1936, Montessori speaks of the rights of children and the need to protect the “health of the spirit” in each child. She encouraged every nation to make these rights into laws, and to design educational systems accordingly.
“Education is a help for the formation of man. I believe that this critical time urgently requires individuals whose personalities will be morally strong and well-balanced. It is necessary to protect ‘the man’ within the child. Experience shows that there are laws of psychical development which should be followed in order to guarantee the health of the “spirit” and I shall give practical demonstration of this in my… school.
I consider it very important nowadays that the rights of the child are recognized by society. The child should be considered by laws as a human being, a citizen who has more rights than the adult. Naturally the child cannot defend himself by himself and, therefore, the parents should do that.
Education should really start with the adult. It is necessary to awaken the public conscience. The entire world should rise in defense of the child because he will be responsible for the good or bad in tomorrow’s society.
Already in many countries, for example, there is a Ministry for Childhood. I think that if there is a Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, A Ministry of Communication, etc., it is much more necessary to have a Ministry for the defense and protection of the Human Race.
On this subject I have campaigned many times on radio and carried on a crusade for the social rights of the child. The public has responded warmly to it because the child represents the most practical solution in order to save and to advance civilization.”
Maria Montessori trusted in the innate spiritual wisdom of children. She believed that they had human rights for freedom that needed to be asserted and protected. While the United States and most other modern industrial democracies are founded on the idea of a separation of church and state, it seems that something went very wrong when we created “factory model” schools that denied the essential freedom and spiritual nature of children.
With their rigid methods of instruction, assessment and testing schools became tools of industry, a place to force compliance, enslave a child’s soul and train workers for the future. The same is true today, I believe, and will continue to be so until we reflect deeply upon the purpose of schooling, the role of educators, and the rights of children.
* Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Understanding How Our Brains Learn * Real Learning is a Creative Process * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail * Every Child is an Artist by Nature * Regaining Our Sense of the Sacred * Flaws at the Heart of Current Education Reforms * 24 Human Character Strengths and Core Virtues * When do you cease to be a CEO and become a grandfather? * How We Participate in the Creative Life of the Universe *